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Open Source Needs Design Notes

#Open Source Needs Design

1. Question

  • Show of hands
    • Designers
    • Developers
  • Core contributors to an open source project?
    • Any projects have designers?

2. 3 things

  • Big picture
  • Specifics
  • Fill the gap (Design Crash Course)

I'm going to talk about 3 things, the big picture (or the current state of design in open source, and how things need to change)

Some specific discussion of best practices for working with designers in your current project

Finally how you can fill the gap of where design is in open source and where it should be, by helping you do the design yourself.

3. Assumption

  • Suspension of disbelief:
  • Designer can help open source - It would be beneficial to have design contributions to open source projects

There is a big assumption I'm going to be delaying - and that is that designers can really be helpful in open source, that it would be beneficial to have design contributions to your projects

I ask you to just accept this assumption for the first two sections of this talk. I'll address it better when we get to the 3rd.

Big Picture

  • Quick overview of benefits of Open Source?
  • To illustrate some of these benefits
  • Are they specific to developers?
  • Designers in open source
    1. Developer knows a guy
    2. Corporate backed project
    3. Designer is a developer
  • Why aren't there more?
    • Tools
    • Culture
      • Nature of the industry
      • Blame art school
  • How can we fix those problems?

Ok, big picture.

What is the current state of design contributions in open source. Has anyone in here recieved design contributions?

Why aren't there more?

I don't know for sure. I just have some assumptions sprinkled with anecdotal evidence. I've boiled my guesses down to two main reasons

First is pretty obvious, and maybe the easier to address. We are missing tools and workflows In open source development workflows and tools are built out as needed by developers. Designers are not really equipped to build their own workflows. If a tool is missing its like a rock in a river, the creativity has to flow around it somehow, but it can mess up the flow.

The second deals more with the culture of design or the attitude of designers

One of the easiest ways to illustrate the difference between design and development culture is to talk about one of the origina free software stories.

Richard Stallman sometimes refers to a xerox printer as something of a catalyst in his involvement with the free software movement.

If you don't know the story, while working at MIT, Richard's department was given the latest model of the xerox printer. The new model was nice, but there was some problems with the software. It was an issue Richard had fixed in the past printer by changing the source code that was provided by Xerox. But the new model did not have the source code provided.

Richard Stallman noticed that software and hardware companies seemed reluctant to release source code, making it impossible for users to fix things themselves. Like welding the hood shut on the car.

This shouldn't be a new story to anyone at OSCON, but I wanted to use it to illustrate something about the culture of development. even before free and open source software really existed - there was a practice of sharing code and experience. This is not exactly the case with design.

It is not a common practice to post source files, to go out of your way as a designer to explain how things are done. You don't see a popular stack overflow for design.

Now there are tutorial sites that have popped up and there is the ocassional designer that will post source files and explanations, but this is the exception more than than the norm.

Because designers have never really expected or experienced this culture of sharing we do not have our open source origin story, there was no culture change to rebel against.

There are some designers doing open source, but for the most part they fall into one of 3 categories

  1. the designer that is the buddy of an open source project owner and does the project a favor
  2. A designer provided by a corporate sponsor - this is either when a company owns a project and assigns a designer to work on the project or when a team of contributors pools money to hire a designer
  3. A designer that happens to be a developer and is very comfortable with existing the existing open source workflows and culture.

How do we overcome this problem? We are working on it. This started for me when I started to encourage designers to get more involved in os, and then last year I gave a talk at Blend Conf about how designers should get more involved and I started It's a site that aims to encourage and facilitate open source design. We've written some articles and tested some workflows. Our next project is an open source design job board of sorts - not to hire designers for money, but for projects to post their needs. If there are any ruby on rails peeps that want to help out with it let me know. I am going to continue to write articles, gather stories from designers, and speak at any design conference that will have me to evangelize the benefits of open source to the design community - we (meaning designers) need it, maybe even more than developers, to help counteract our more closed culture.


  • You have a project
  • Need design
  • We have a shortage of designers
  • How do you get one?
  • Something that interests a designer or designers
  • Clear messaging
  • Take what you can get
    • Start by working with their workflow
    • Encourage and train

So that's the general state of design in open source Let's talk specifically about your project. Let's say you want to attract a designer to work on your project. First - we need to be realistic about a couple things - here I might be the crusher of hopes, but I plan to build them back up You may not get a designer any time soon. Especially if your project is not something that is of direct interest to a designer. Recently we've seen some great adoption of SASS in the design community - this is primarily because it is filling a need for designers and Dan Cedarholm told designers it's cool. Because of this, they have a design team with some amazing contributors like Bermon Painter. They are doing great design work just because they love the product. If you are building something that will never be touched by a designer in their workflow it will be hard to get them interested enough to get involved. You can help your chances though. Start by fixing your current project description. Vitorio Miliano wrote a great article on the subject of getting designers, or any non developer to make contributions. He recommends that every potential contributor needs understand the following about your project:

  1. the value of your project

  2. the value they could provide to the project

  3. the value they could receive from contributing to the project

  4. the contribution process, end-to-end

  5. a contribution mechanism suitable for their existing workflows

this part may vary somewhat based on their role, such as different types of designers, writers, etc.

Go rewrite your descriptions and your documentation. Find a way to write your need for design and how someone could fulfill it. Be frank and clear about your description.


#DIY Design

What is design? It’s not so simple. There are several types of design.

Don’t be discouraged don’t be stuck by paralyzing perfectionism don’t ever stay satisfied with you the current quality of your work

Design is a complex, rewarding, and a beautiful work. Not something that could be easily explained in a short keynote.

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